28 June 2010

Review: Blood

Vicious Fish Theatre
25 June 2010
Theatre Works

Sergei Belbel's Blood asks what are the limits of a common morality and tests them with exposure to torture. It's an uncomfortable night in the theatre that leaves its audience shellshocked. But, like going on a roller coaster, the experience is worth the fear.

This production continues Scott Gooding and Vicious Fish Theatre's commitment to the works of Catalan playwright Sergi Belbel. Blood follows productions of Caresses and After The Rain. If reviews are to be believed, one was amazing and the other got a bit lost.

In Blood, a woman is kidnapped and told that over the next 40 hours she will lose a finger, an ear, a foot and her head unless her husband pays up. Her torturers try to ease her physical pain, but consider her life a necessary loss for their (unknown) cause. In a circular structure, filled with literal and metaphorical images of blood, we are taken from the torture room to the discoveries of her body parts, and returned to see the results.

Director Gooding quickly makes his audience uneasy with a flash of blinding light followed by a room that's uncomfortably dark, but light enough to see what we don't want to see. The text describes the importance of a clean amputation, but the visceral reactions come from the sound of an electric saw and the fearless performance of Janine Watson.

The sickening anticipation of pain and fear in the opening scene creates a physical reaction that draws the audience through to the conclusion, and the comedy that immediately follows offers some respite, but the relief is slightly frustrating.

Comedy isn't jokes and wit; it's how we get through every day. We laugh at ourselves and the world, so we can cope with the tedious and the unbearable. It's why we hear great jokes at funerals and why there's always some humour in great art. There is a lot of humour in Blood, but the laughs are sometimes misplaced and take us away from the story by reminding us that it's all a game of pretend, rather than giving us the breathing space to cope with the anticipation of the horror that's to come. This style of humour works best when we are laughing only to stop ourselves from running or puking and the  comedy could be toned down in order to make the laughs awkward and uncomfortable.

Watson, Alison Adriano, Chloé Boreham, Jon Peck, James Tresise and Kassandra Whitson are all strong performers who understand the nuances and guts of Blood, but they are not always compelling because they are bringing us the text and the plot, rather than letting us see the stories about people discovering the unimaginable.

One of the strengths of the script is that is brings the hidden blood of the torture room to our everyday world.  As the audience know what's in the appendage-sized packages, the middle scenes have to be about the people who discover the packages. To sustain the gut-churning emotion of the opening, we have to care as much about every character as we do about the woman being tortured. Complete and complex people need to be on the stage, so that instead of asking why on earth the woman doesn't just walk away from the world's most annoying man, we're wanting two damaged souls to find love on that park bench and wondering how the discovery of an amputated finger is going to change their chances.

Theatre is moments of change. Each character is a different person at the end of their scene and showing more of that change, and more of the lightness before the dark, will bring the empathy and closeness that will leave the audience unable to breathe.

The Blood text also suffers from a very literal English translation, to the point that words and phrases received giggles simply because they didn't sound right to the audience or feel right to the actors. Stage language by its nature is contrived and it's up to the actors to make it sound like it is the most natural and only logical way that people talk in this world. The language shouldn't get in the way of what the playwright and creators are saying.

Shows as unnerving as Blood need to settle and change as audiences react. Having survived its first week, the time to see Blood is this week; not only because the season ends, but because it will be so much closer to being something you're unlikely to forget.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: Heracles High 5

Heracles High 5
A is for Atlas
23 June 2010
Meat Market

A is for Atlas are another Melbourne independent company who are dedicated to exploring their unique theatrical voice. In Heracles High 5, director Xan Coleman and his team explore the nature of contemporary heroes and heroism and if we expect far too much of those we hold in esteem.

The laminated safety instruction cards and the airline hanger-like proportions of the gorgeous Meat Market set the scene for the Heracles High 5 trip. But our plane is actually a TV studio and we're ready for the filming of "Green and Gold Live". With screens that tell us when to applaud, sigh, cheer and declare OMG, and a host as enigmatic as Jules (Wes Snelling), it doesn't matter that the plane/TV studio metaphor seems a bit odd because the band is playing, Wes is singing and we've met super hot Heracles.

Heracles looks a lot like Michael Hutchence and sings like Nick Cave, so he could only be more of an Aussie rock hero if he donned hot pats and sang "I Should Be So Lucky". The lyrics were difficult to decipher, but there was enough about diggers and Lleyton Hewitt to let us know what the songs were about.

With an interview by Jules and questions from the 'audience', we learn that spunky Heracles has been every hero since his days in Ancient Greece, including Napoleon, Chuck Berry, John Cleese and a member of the Third Reich – and he's sick of it. He's sick of repeating the his five labours,  he's fed up with Zeus (dad) interfering and had enough of being an idle idol, so he's not denying news report that he's become a government mercenary.

Up to now, Heracles High 5 was so much fun and so original, that any lack of narrative drive was irrelevant.  Looking at the hero versus entertainer and the why folk who haven't done that much get the same label as those who define our universal myths and archetypes is enough to get our brains ticking over.  Then the plane crashed and Heracles had to shovel a lot of poo.  Literally.

The second half takes place on Christmas Island where Heracles repeats his labours and I have no idea why. Heracles ended the same bloke as he was at the beginning, so the labours were a waste of his time. Perhaps what was missing was the human in the hero. Heracles was part human, but this hero was cold, grumpy and dull. Sure he was good looking enough to pick up anyone, but one reason contemporary heroes earn their title is because they are likeable, because they are human.  While Heracles remained unapproachable, grouchy, short tempered and bored with everything, there was not reason for anyone to care what happened to him and I would have flown away without him.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.

25 June 2010

GIVEAWAY: Kunst ist Scheisse

We can’t go to a dingy club in 1930s Berlin for a taste of Weimar Kabaret, but Melbourne has some fine dingy alleys and we can speak some German at the long awaited return of Kunst ist Scheisse on Wednesday 30 June and sample comedy, circus, burlesque and ‘arty shit’ from the Melbourne’s finest alternative cabaret artists.

Long before Australia Has Talent, artists would gather in clubs to discuss culture and politics over espressos and absinthe – and perform. With critical eyes and adventurous spirits, these dissident performers took risks, took liberties and took their audience somewhere shockingly new.  And the cabaret tradition still thrives.

Kunst ist Scheisse (Art is Shit) first appeared six years ago in a Brunswick Street bar and the monthly show featured many artists who are now among Melbourne’s favourites (and mine).  After a three-year run, the organisers developed their own shows and regularly appeared at The Last Tuesday Society.

The welcome back Kunst show is at 24 Moons, Melbourne’s newest cocktail bar in ACDC Lane, and will rock all night long with host Eva Johansen (part clown, part ingénue), house band The Suitcase Royale (before they head off to the UK again) and a program that reads like an award ceremony with a line up who have won Golden Gibbo, Green Room, Barry and Melbourne Fringe awards and wowed the toughest critics in Melbourne, the UK and the US.

With most of the performers regularly selling out their individual shows, this is an extraordinary opportunity to see The List Operators, Wes Snelling, The Caravan of Love and David Quirk. And check out record-breaking juggler Earl Shatford and dance artist Jess Devereaux.

Kunst ist Sheisse promises a different line up each fortnight and it’ll pay to arrive early as the venue is intimate.

More information is on their Facebook page. Or be at 24 Moons in ACDC Lane from 8pm on Wednesday.

Kunst ist Scheisse has free double pass for a Sometimes Melbourne reader. If you'd like to come along on Wednesday 30 June, email your name to kunst@internode.on.net by 5 pm on Tuesday 29 June with Sometimes Melbourne as your subject.  The winner's name will be drawn out of a bowler hat and the winner will be emailed on Tuesday night. 

Photo by Telia Neville

13 June 2010

Review: Grönholm Method

Grönholm Method
Red Stitch Actors Theatre
13 June 2010
Red Stitch

Do artists really have such a strange and limited view of the corporate world?

In the Grönholm Method four 40ish corporates arrive for a final job interview, only to find it's a group process, it's already started and at least one of them is telling porkies.

With potential employers checking Facebook pages (check your security settings now), psychological profiling of job applicants and most nine-to-fivers knowing their Myer-Briggs type (I'm an INFP), there's no doubt that getting a job these days is more than shining your shoes and smiling like a loon. And then there's all those 'pc' laws that prevent a job description listing boob size or age as the primary criteria.

Red Stitch have another script that would never have made it's way down under without this wonderful company and Jordl Galceran Ferrer's should be a gift to actors. The playwright supplies a tight and twisty plot that holds on to its secrets for as long as possible, but doesn't give the actors much to work with, as the plot pushes out the story.

The characters on the stage already have their polished work faces on and are trying to deceive each other and impress an unseen decision maker. They have no intention of ever letting down their guard and showing their real selves. Which is where the method lost me.

I wanted to see more... method. No matter how many layers and masks are being played, the cast are playing are real people and we don't see them.  All we see is mask, which leaves lots to admire, but little to care about.

I've worked in the corporate world and know that none of these candidates would have got past a first interview. Of course that's irrelevant, but I knew it because I didn't believe a thing they said or did – they never showed their real selves  – and that left me looking at actors on a stage, rather than people I believed.

And when they did reveal their true selves, they were as cliched and false as their faux-selves.  Even if there are no clues in the script, actors this good can create characters who are real. Just as all artists aren't self-absorbed, drunken and promiscuous wannabes; not all corporates are twats. Make these people real and all their play acting and testing will make Grönholm Method compulsory viewing for everyone who has ever donned a work suit and wondered if this is the life they really want to lead.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.

Cabaret treats on YouTube

Cabaret in all its versions is, was and will possibly always be my favourite musical.

Alan Cumming is my favourite Emcee and he made a docco called The Real Cabaret, where he goes to Berlin to see Christopher Isherwood's flat and seek out reminders of Weimer Kabaret. He also interviews people like Liza Minelli and Ute Lempur. It's great. Here is part one and the rest is on YouTube. 

Alan was the Emcee in Sam Mendes' 1993 Donmar Warehouse production, with Jane Horrocks as Sally.  (Alan rehearsed Cabaret during the day and performed as Hamlet at night!) Sam Mendes went on to direct a little Oscar-winning film called American Beauty and took his production and Alan to Broadway, where Natasha Richardson was Sally. Both versions won stacks of awards.

We saw a big theatre version in Australia with Toby Allen and Tina Arena or Lisa McCune.

Alan's site alone will easily kill a few hours on the web, but he's also an obsessive geek,  and is one of the creators of itsasickness.com, where fellow obsessives can share their passion for anything from Dr Who to coffee or, in Alan's case, truffle oil.

But back to musicals. Now, if Dr Who turned up in the tardis (preferably looking like David Tennant), I'd ask for a soy latte and a trip to 1993 London to see the original Donmar Cabaret cast.

Turns out I don't need to wait for a frolic with a 900-year-old time lord, because there's a damn fine video of the show on YouTube. It's not as good as being there, but I can watch it in my trackies and sing along.

Here's  part one (can't embed it). The whole show is on the Tube and it's amazing.

And speaking of Emcees...look who joined Alan at the Kennedy Centre Honours Kander and Ebb.

But this has to be the the best "Wilkommen" ever.

So what about some Sallys. Of course I love Liza the most (and here she is winning her Oscar), but...

Natasha was wonderful. (SometimesMelbourne doesn't approve of illegal recordings of shows - but thanks!)

And this is a bit fuzzy and the sound drops out, but it was recorded in 1968. It's Judi Dench and a glimpse of Hal Prince's original show.

Jill Hayworth was the first Sally in 1966, so she gets the final song (and there are some stills from the first production).

Review: Boston Marriage

Boston Marriage
4 June 2010
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio

"We do love shiny thing," says Anna in Boston Marriage. Yes we do, and this show is shiny and glittery enough to want the necklace and a matching pair of earrings.

David Mamet writes plays and films about blokes and masculinity, so 1999's Boston Marriage was a surprise, being about chintz, chunks and chicks. 'Boston Marriage' was a nineteenth-century endearment for spinsters sharing a house, because they couldn't find themselves a hubby, and the play is a drawing room farce with a wit and passion that (like its namesakes) defies the categories it gets carelessly named.

Mamet's Anna (Pamela Rabe) and Claire (Margaret Mills) have shared more than an abode and Anna can't wait to share the news that she has a wealthy paramour whose generosity will allow them to maintain their chintz-decorated lifestyle. Claire is happy, but more intent on bringing her new (very) young love to the house. If only the youngster didn't recognise Anna's shiny necklace, and the maid (Sara Gleeson) could keep her mouth shut.

From her high camp entrance in lush green velvet, Rabe's insecure and jealous Anna is a perfect foil to Mills's thoughtfully sharp (and desperately horny) Claire. With perfect timing and unbalanced emotion, both have everything at stake and manipulate and insult each other in ways reserved for those we truly love and understand.

Having a divine cast and a script that doesn't waste a single contrived and poetic word must be bliss for a director, and Aidan Fennessy (one of the best comedy directors in town) makes Boston Marriage shine more by camping up the wit without detracting from character or the essential drama of the story.

Gloriously funny and perfectly performed, Boston Marriage plays with class, gender and manners that could place it as easily in today's East Mebourne as nineteenth-century Boston and is by far my favourite MTC show this year.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.

05 June 2010

Review: The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera
Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera
2 June 2010
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

"The good old diggers, who pull their triggers from Bagdad to Khe Sanh..." There's no doubt that Malthouse Theatre and Victoria Opera have relocated the The Threepenny Opera down under.

And where better than Underbelly Melbourne, where the Peachams gaze at the moon over St Kilda and Mac loves a whorehouse in North Bulleen.  Throw in a dream cast of Melbourne favourites and you've got a show sold out before it opens.

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera was first performed in Berlin in 1928. It went to Broadway and, according to Wikipedia, has had over 10,000 productions since – a number that would probably triple with the uncountable amateur, high school and university productions.

Michael Kantor chose this loved and still astonishing piece of theatre for his Malthouse swansong and what a way to go!  From the moment Paul Capsis sings "Mack the Knife" in a yellow dress and a blindfold, there's no doubt that the ride's going to be bumpy and exciting in all the right ways.

As Brecht worked with Weill, Kantor has again teamed with Richard Gill, following from their stunning 2008 collaboration Through the Looking Glass. Gill's Victorian Opera continues to pull down the artifice and misconceptions about this shiny form and celebrates it with incomparable style and invention.

Much of Weill's genius lay in his ability to write extraordinary songs for singers and non-singers,  but combining the best performers from the opera and cabaret/musical theatre worlds still offers its challenges. It's impossible to compare the crystal clear vocals of contemporary opera superstar Dimity Shepherd (Lucy) with the husky belting of Capsis (Jenny), but Kantor ensures that this combination of unlikely voices is natural in this world and Gill ensures that they complement each other in unexpected ways.

It's difficult to discuss the cast without using the word perfect, or Perfect.  Highlights include every moment Judi Connelli and Grant Smith sing as the Peachams; Capsis giving Lotte Lenya a run for her money; Anna O'Byrne (Polly) and Shepherd's "Jealousy Duet"; and Casey Bennetto (Tiger Brown) and Mac's "Canon Song". Eddie Perfect is Macheath – and yes he is. If you like your Macs cold and brooding, this "sadist and a rapist" may seem a bit nice,  but it's hard to be cold when you're wearing glittery braces and by the end of Act 2 there's few in the audience not wanting a filthy lusty moment with Mac.

The design team of Peter Corrigan (set) and Anna Cordingley (costume) have coloured a world that supports the characters, but doesn't feel like the Melbourne being sung about, and the designs seem to complete with each other for the dominant images, which oddly mixes agit-prop, boxing and clown-face metaphors. At times they look beautiful together, but it's not too hard to imagine the set with plain black costumes or the costumes in an empty black space.

None of which takes away from this production.

With such wonders on the stage, it could be easy to forget the orchestra, but the vocal/orchestral balance is ideal and Gill's musical direction is so like listening to early recordings of the work, that it is surely how Weill imagined it to sound.  And Brecht would have had a proud giggle at the bawdy Aussie interpretation of the text and lyrics by Raymond Cortese and Jeremy Sands.

Once you discover Brecht and Weill, there's no going back to a theatre world without them and great professional productions of The Threepenny Opera should not be missed. This one is officially sold out, but limited tickets may become available, so check the Malthouse website.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.

Richard and Eddie

Alan and Cyndi


03 June 2010

Review: The Ugly One

The Ugly One
27 May 2010
The MTC Theatre, Lawler

What would you do if you were told you were ugly? Not homely or plain or "not my type", but so unacceptably ugly that even your beloved can only look at your left eye.

Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One is far more than a deliciously dark glance at superficiality, but draws its audience close with the shared fear of being rejected for our exterior. Who hasn't glanced in a mirror wishing that the face/body/clothes of someone else would wink back? No matter how much we know that real beauty is on the inside, we don't want to be ugly.

Lette (Patrick Brammel) had no idea that he was ugly, until his boss, Scheffler (Kim Gyngell), wants to send the hotter Karlmann (Luke Ryan) to a conference and Lette's wife, Fanny (Alison Bell), confesses that she always admired her husband for coping so well with his ugliness.  Now knowing he is socially unacceptable, Lette finds help from surgeon Scheffler and is transformed into a total spunk rat.  Business for the good looking can only get better and new friends like wealthy surgery addict Fanny and her son Karlmann offer new paths. Until everyone wants to look like Lette, and surgeon Scheffler owns the template.

Berlin-based von Mayenburg's work was last seen here in 2008 in Moving Target, directed by Benedict Andrews.  Mayenburg's style joyfully exploits all that is unique about theatre and gives its creative team the freedom to inject their own staging solutions.  From Moliere to McNamara, director Peter Evans lets his playwright's voices lead, yet the The Ugly One doesn't allow for an uninstrusive director; and it's a welcome surprise to see a sense of Evan's own style and choices.

The in the round stage contains office chairs, a microphone and buckets filled with crunchy, dribbly apples that provide a gruesome soundscape for the surgery. The couldn't-be-better cast morph between same-named characters as sharply as the surgeon's knife and the moments of doubt in between provide an unexpected rhythm to the text – and even more laughs.

Like recent gems Moth (Malthouse/Arena) and That Face (Red Stitch) and even MTCs Richard III (that didn't tickle me under the chin and make me smile), getting a ticket to The Ugly One is a challenge, but extra 9.30pm shows have been added so you don't have to miss out.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.